From: Julie Steenhuysen, Reuters, CHICAGO
Published December 23, 2010 07:05 AM

African Forest Elephants, African Savanna Elephants

Instead of one species of elephant, Africa has two, researchers said on Tuesday, confirming suspicions about the two distinctly different looking pachyderms.

Using gene sequencing tools, teams from Harvard, the University of Illinois and the University of York in Britain have shown that instead of being the same species -- as scientists have long believed -- the African savanna elephant and the smaller African forest elephant are distant cousins, having been largely separated for 2 million to 7 million years.


"What our study suggests is forest and savanna elephants are very distantly related to each other and not just subspecies or populations of the same species," said Alfred Roca of the University of Illinois, who worked on the study published in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS Biology.

The teams compared the genetic code of modern elephants from Africa and Asia to DNA taken from two extinct species -- the woolly mammoth and the American mastodon.

"The surprising finding is that forest and savanna elephants from Africa -- which some have argued are the same species -- are as distinct from each other as Asian elephants and mammoths," David Reich of Harvard Medical School in Boston, who worked on the study, said in a statement.

Africa's forest and savanna elephants are vastly different in size. The savanna elephant is roughly double the weight of the forest elephant at six to seven tons and measures about 11.5 feet tall at the shoulder -- about 3 feet (1 meter) taller than the forest elephant.

Even so, many scientists had thought the two populations of elephants came from the same species, in part because they mated and produced offspring.

Not so, says Professor Michi Hofreiter, an expert in ancient DNA from York.

"The divergence of the two species took place around the time of the divergence of the Asian elephant and woolly mammoths," Hofreiter said in a statement.

Photo shows Forest Elephants that have now been confirmed as a new species of elephant as distinguished from the larger savanna elephant in Africa.
Photo Credit: REUTERS/Nicholas Georgiadis/Handout

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